The most charitable way I could describe Tower of Fantasy's relationship to Genshin Impact would be "inspired." It's so deeply inspired by Hoyoverse's anime character action game that it would be easy to shrug it off as one of the many mobile clones you see show up in ads trying to convince you they're where the real players are at. Its uncanny resemblance to Genshin is the hardest thing to get over in its opening hours, kind of like trying to get over how much Genshin felt like Breath of the Wild when it came out. But if you can grimace through it and restrain your cynicism, the MMO-like systems it introduces could be what sets it apart.
Tower of Fantasy copy-pastes a lot of Genshin's most impressive aspects as well as its most egregious. Let's take stock:
- It's an open world game where the planet is under attack by monsters and they reside in camps strewn throughout the world.
- Anime characters—who are, in this case, mostly Evangelion rejects—have to save said planet.
- The aesthetic is both bright and fantastical, but also sci-fi and grim like the '90s anime, and Hoyoverse's other action game, Honkai Impact 3rd.
- It's a gacha game where you grind resources and dailies like it's your job or pay real money to get a chance at earning one of its characters.
- Even when you get one of those characters, who are linked to their unique weapons, you need to level them up equal to your current progression in the game.
Genshin runs through the veins of Tower of Fantasy; it's practically biological.
Unlike Genshin, Tower of Fantasy has a fully customizable main character, with sliders and everything. It's a big deal if you've never liked having to play as Hoyoverse's mostly silent protagonists. Here you can make anyone you want, although a lot of people are just trying to make Genshin characters.
None of the characters, both the ones you can play and the ones you meet, make a good first impression in Tower of Fantasy's haphazard opening missions. It took me a while to care much about Genshin's story because a lot of it is delivered piecemeal and via dialogue that puts me to sleep. Only the game's most recent updates have underlined how many of its characters are fun to hang out with even if the game's main plot remains dry. For some reason, Tower of Fantasy borrowed that too. Genshin's ability-blending combat is satisfying enough (if you are lucky or loaded enough to get the characters you want) that its storytelling isn't intrusive; it's possible Tower of Fantasy will be the same way with time.
I couldn't find a flow with the weapons I picked up in my few hours with the game. Shoulder-mounted cannons and dual-wielding pistols don't have the same oomph of Genshin's superpowered team-ups, who might suck enemies into a tornado so an archer can obliterate them with frozen arrows. The lack of character-specific abilities in Tower of Fantasy puts a lot of pressure on the weapons to fill that role, and without a lot of time to experiment, combat can be disjointed. Your character's ability to frequently launch powered-up attacks keeps skirmishes exciting, but, like Genshin, it'll take a bit before you find a groove that will remain engaging for the hundreds of hours the game expects you to spend with it.
Tower of Fantasy mirrors the boundless exploration of Genshin too. It's nowhere near as elegant: Genshin-style environment-based puzzles that are tucked away in the world are replaced with a bunch of chests and interactable objects, and you have access to mounts that effectively shrink the entire map. The open world is stripped of the illusion that you'll stumble on secrets as you explore and the friction of having to do most of it on foot is largely gone too.
It instead goes for the Ubisoft approach where you're encouraged to squeeze the world and every system in it like a sponge. Tower of Fantasy's utilitarian approach to open world design overwhelms me. If, however, you're someone who finds clearing out sections of a map to be one of the most gratifying things in games, Tower of Fantasy's maximalist approach could be for you.
Like Genshin, Tower of Fantasy is ultimately a game about whacking monsters with swords to make the numbers pop out. It has a stamina bar that limits how quickly you can execute a powerful attack or climb a mountain, but, on the test server I played on, it had plenty of give for whatever activity I was engaged in. You can swap between weapons at any time and combo their effects, just like flipping through Genshin characters. The enemies I fought weren't tough enough to require it, but the damage bonus (and sick attack animations) you get for doing so were worth it if only to speed up fights that were taking too long. The game's PvP and endgame will test how deep this style of combat is and how necessary it will be to spend hours gathering resources to level your weapons and character up. There's a chance that the level of grind won't be commensurate with the reward for its most difficult activities, but it'll take some time for players to figure that out.
Tower of Fantasy ultimately uses Genshin as a lure to get you into its world and systems. Gacha games mimic the most familiar parts of other games for a reason: they want you in as fast as possible so that there's a chance you might spend some money. Tower of Fantasy is as guilty as any other game with systems built to exploit your desire to make playing it easier. But it also suggests it might add compelling layers on top of the framework of Genshin, like how other players can seamlessly phase into your world and fight by your side or how you can equip temporary tools (each categorized like MMO archetypes) like a mech suit to deal huge amounts of damage. Genshin always flirted with MMO-like ideas, so if Tower of Fantasy successfully incorporates enough parts of that genre, it could be a worthy counter to Hoyoverse's mostly lonely world.
For much of its opening hours, Tower of Fantasy is a messy game that doesn't have a clear vision for what makes it distinct from all the other options out there. It chose Genshin as the template, which, as far as templates go, isn't a bad choice. It successfully made me want to poke around its world and knock around its dinky enemies. I can't really say no to any of that, I just wish it spent a little less time assuring me it's like the thing I've played before and more time convincing me on the things that make it unique.